We investigated the spectral and morphological features of the photoreceptors of five atherinomorph teleosts, representing two different orders, and with different life styles and habitats, the Beloniformes and Atheriniformes. The retinae of Belone belone (Belonidae), Dermogenys pusillus (Hemiramphidae), Atherina boyeri (Atherinidae), Marosatherina ladigesi (Telmatherinidae), and Melanotaenia maccullochi (Melanotaeniidae) were examined by light and electron microscopy and microspectrophotometry. In addition to rods, five morphologically different cone types were identified: short, intermediary and long single cones, and double cones which are arranged in distinct specific mosaics. Sporadically, triple cones were also found. Double cones were longer-wave-sensitive, but no general correlation between single cone morphology and spectral sensitivity could be demonstrated. The rods had lambda(max) close to 506-509 nm. The lambda(max) of cone visual pigments ranged from about 368 nm to 578 nm. Ultraviolet-sensitive single cones were present in the three freshwater species, M. ladigesi, M. maccullochi and D. pusillus and three spectrally distinct short-wave-sensitive single cone classes were identified in M. maccullochi. In M. ladigesi, spectral sensitivity varied among individuals due to varying rhodopsin/porphyropsin mixtures. In D. pusillus and M. maccullochi polymorphism of the longer-wave cone pigments might occur. These findings are discussed with respect to phylogeny, photic habitat, behavior and feeding habits.